The True Christian Congregation
Many different religious bodies lay claim to being the one true Christian congregation. How can we determine whether such claims are true or false? What are the origin, purpose and destiny of the true Christian congregation? How can it be identified?
A TRAVELER arrived at a small Midwestern town in the United States on a Sunday morning. Being a regular churchgoer, he asked the first townsman he met: “Stranger, where can I find the X———— church?” The stranger replied: “The X———— church is to be found all over town but they meet over at First and Main Streets.” Though this anecdote is often repeated as an attempt at humor it nevertheless illustrates a point germane to our discussion, for, according to the Bible, the Christian church is not a building of wood or stone but the Christian congregation.
To avoid confusion it seems best therefore to speak of the Christian congregation rather than the Christian church. The terms “church” and “churches” occur some 115 times in the Authorized Version, and in all but one instance they translate the Greek word ekklesia, which means, not a building, but an assembly, a congregation, and more specifically, an assembly that has been summoned, a congregation that has been called out.
While some hold that their religious body alone is the true Christian congregation, others believe that all who lay claim to being Christian together constitute the Christian congregation and that such are just so many different roads all leading to heaven. However, if that were true it would mean that the Christian congregation is divided, and the apostle Paul, an authority on the subject, unequivocally states that Christ is not divided: “Disclosure was made to me about you, my brothers, . . . that dissensions exist among you. What I mean is this, that each one of you says: ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘But I to Apollos,’ ‘But I to Cephas,’ ‘But I to Christ.’ Does the Christ exist divided?” Clearly those words indicate that the true Christian congregation is not divided into hundreds of contradictory sects and creeds.—1 Cor. 1:11-13, NW.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION
Making for the unity of the Christian congregation is the fact that it recognizes only one head, Christ Jesus: “He is the head of the body, the congregation.” To the extent that the head is in control, the body functions harmoniously. And changing the illustration from a body to a city or temple, we find that the Christian congregation has “been built up upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, while Christ Jesus himself is the foundation cornerstone.”—Col. 1:18; Eph. 2:20, NW.
Christ made no provision for a clergy-laity distinction in the Christian congregation but said, “Do not you be called ‘Rabbi’, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for One is your Father, the heavenly One.” However, he did provide for overseers and assistants, missionaries, shepherds and teachers, “with a view to the training of the holy ones for ministerial work, for the building up of the body of the Christ.” There was no clergy-laity distinction, because all were preachers. Christ set the example for all to follow, even as Paul shows: “Become imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.”—Matt. 23:8, 9; Eph. 4:11, 12; 1 Cor. 11:1, NW.
After Jesus’ death we find that a governing body, consisting of the apostles and other mature disciples, resided in Jerusalem. This was consulted when perplexing questions came up, such as the matter of Gentile converts’ being circumcised. After ascertaining God’s mind on the matter it sent letters of instructions to the various local congregations. (Acts 15:1-35) This made for unity in understanding and preaching. It is reasonable to expect that today there would also be a governing body. Only by means of such an instrument could the Christian congregation on earth today be united in understanding and activity.
According to God’s Word the Christian congregation is limited to 144,000 called, chosen and faithful ones: “And I saw, and look! the Lamb standing upon the mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand having his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads. . . . These were purchased from among mankind as a firstfruits to God.” That this number is literal is seen from Revelation 7, where it is also given and contrasted with a great crowd from all nations that no man could number. Not that only 144,000 will ever gain salvation, but that only that number will gain the heavenly inheritance as choice “firstfruits.” Jesus called them a little flock and, compared with all mankind, the Christian congregation of 144,000 is a little flock.—Rev. 14:1, 4; Luke 12:32, NW.
CALLING OUT THE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION
The very first essential to becoming one of the Christian congregation is a knowledge of and faith in Jehovah God and his purposes, and particularly of his provision for life through the sacrifice of his Son Christ Jesus. And since “faith without works is dead,” one must prove his faith by turning his back on the world and his past selfish course, dedicating himself to the doing of God’s will. Then he must make public declaration of that fact by being baptized, in keeping with Jesus’ command: “Make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them.”—Jas. 2:26; Matt. 28:19, 20, NW.
It is from those who have taken the foregoing steps that God chooses the individual members of the Christian congregation. This he does by accepting their dedication, by declaring them righteous on the basis of their faith in Christ’s blood, and then bringing them forth or acknowledging them as his sons by means of his Word and his holy spirit, awakening in them a hope of life in the heavens with Christ Jesus. On the basis of this they now seek “glory and honor and incorruptibleness by endurance in work that is good.”—Jas. 1:18; Rom. 2:7, NW.
The Christian congregation, as regards Christ’s body, began at Pentecost, when the holy spirit was poured out on the 120 gathered in Jerusalem, Christ Jesus there opening up a new and living way. It follows, then, that none who lived before that time were of the Christian congregation; which fact explains why Jesus said that, although none born of women were greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than John. For nineteen hundred years God has been selecting the Christian congregation, and the emphasis that he has caused to be placed on the earthly blessings he has in store for others, particularly since 1931, would indicate the heavenly number is about complete.—Matt. 11:11.
While most professed Christians are familiar with the many promises God’s Word contains regarding the heavenly glory awaiting the Christian congregation, comparatively few are familiar with or take seriously the purpose of the Christian congregation while on earth. Following Christ Jesus is not merely a matter of cleaning up one’s morals, for he had clean morals to begin with. Jesus repeatedly testified, both by word and by action, that the purpose of his coming to earth was that he “should bear witness to the truth.” And so, regarding his followers we are told that God “turned his attention to the nations to take out of them a people for his name,” and that this people, his Christian congregation, are “‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for special possession, that you should declare abroad the excellencies’ of the one that called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”—John 18:37; Acts 15:14; 1 Pet. 2:9, NW.
IDENTIFYING THE TRUE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION
In view of the many denominations that claim to be the true Christian congregation, by what rule, canon or touchstone can we determine which has the right to that claim? By God’s Word, since Jesus said of it, “Your word is truth.”—John 17:17, NW.
Yes, since Jesus accepted the Bible as God’s Word, it must follow that the Christian congregation accepts the inspiration of the Bible. Paul reasoned from the Scriptures, the Bereans were commended for checking by their Bibles everything they heard Paul say; and he wrote Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, . . . that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” And Peter stated that “men spoke from God as they were borne along by holy spirit.” It follows, therefore, that no religious body that fails to accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God could be the Christian congregation.—2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21; Acts 17:2, 11, NW.
Further, Jesus said to his followers on the night of his betrayal: “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” It follows that all professed Christians who are divided economically, bitterly fighting one another either as employer versus employee or as competitor; or politically, at election time slinging mud at one another; or nationally, in time of war going out to kill one another, such as Methodist killing Methodist, Lutheran killing Lutheran or Catholic killing Catholic, could not be of the true Christian congregation, for they are not loving one another as Christ Jesus loved his followers, by laying his life down for them.—John 13:34, 35, NW.
Helping us further to identify the true Christian congregation are Jesus’ words that his followers would be no part of the world: “Because you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on this account the world hates you.” And the disciple James stated that pure worship consisted of keeping oneself unspotted by the world and that “friendship with the world is enmity with God.”—John 15:19; Jas. 1:27; 4:4, NW.
And not only was the true Christian congregation to be unpopular, and no part of this world, but it was to be violently persecuted: “All those desiring to live with godly devotion in association with Christ Jesus will also be persecuted.” It follows, then, that all who mix in with the world’s politics and business schemes and who are well thought of by it could not be the true congregation.—2 Tim. 3:12, NW.
Christ Jesus while on earth preached the good news of God’s kingdom and he foretold that at the time of his return and the end of this wicked old system of things “this good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for the purpose of a witness to all the nations.” This eliminates from the claimants to being the true Christian congregation all those who hold out the governments of man as God’s kingdom or who look to such schemes as the United Nations organization or the World Federalist movement to bring about righteous and peaceful conditions upon earth. And it would also eliminate any whose message is not being preached in all the world.—Matt. 24:14, NW.
And finally, the true Christian congregation must have evidence of God’s blessing upon it. It must grow and prosper in quality and numbers in spite of all the temptations and pressures that the Devil and the world can bring against it. As Gamaliel well said to his associates in the Sanhedrin: “If this scheme and this work is from men, it will be overthrown; but if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” Yes, far from seeking special favors from worldly governments the true Christian congregation will thrive in spite of persecution by such governments.—Acts 5:38, 39, NW.
Having noted the nature of the structure of the true Christian congregation, how it is chosen, its origin, purpose and destiny, and how it can be identified, it is the responsibility of each one who would have God’s approval and gain everlasting life to determine which professed Christian organization “is the congregation of the living God, a pillar and support of the truth.”—1 Tim. 3:15, NW.